It's like clockwork; Moments after popping open any game that has a mature rating, my 10-year-old son seems to appear at my elbow to ask if he can play it with me.
It's a mix of things that draws Tristan to these games that he knows I don't let him play. I suspect the fact that I've told him he can't play them tops the list, followed by the fact that they deal with topics considered taboo for most children.
So when Gears of War 3 arrived on my doorstep within minutes Tristan arrived at my elbow. But I surprised him with an unusual answer to his usual question: We'll see, I said.
Increasingly, video games give players the ability to fine-tune their experience in a way that television shows and movies still can't.
In games like Gears of War, players can turn on filters that remove the mature language found in the game's dialog and the blood and gore that fills the game. You're still shooting the game's monstrous Locust and Lambent. But the sprays of blood and the ability to literally blast an enemy into bloody chunks of meat is removed.
The resulting, much-tamer depiction of violence against fictional creatures had me reconsidering my hard no-mature games rule, but only because the game didn't seem to really deserve the rating with those filters turned on.
Curious about how the filters might impact ratings, I contacted the Entertainment Software Ratings Board for their take. Does the game deserve a second, filters-on rating, I asked. Turns out they get that question a lot from kids trying to win an argument with their parents.
"Ultimately we feel our rating should reflect the most extreme content possible, regardless of whether filters can eliminate or diminish some of that content," said ESRB spokesman Eliot Mizrachi. "Having a secondary 'filters on' rating would not only be potentially confusing for parents that are unaware of those settings, but may not provide those parents assurance in terms of avoiding their child's exposure to certain content since these filters aren't usually lockable and can typically be switched off by the player."
Mature filters have been around in Gears of War since the first game hit the Xbox 360 in 2006, but initially there was some debate over whether to include the option.
Some in the studio worried that including the filters would mean they were no longer staying true to their "creative vision," said Rod Fergusson, Epic Games' director of production. Ultimately, he said, they decided that wasn't the case and that including them had some benefits.
"Yes, in our minds the game is a better experience without filtering but it's still a great game with filtering turned on," he said. "And, at the end of the day, if these types of filters mean that a larger number of players get to experience our game then it is certainly worth the effort."
That first Gears of War only had a single option for "extreme content." Turning it on cut down on the game's gore and mature language. In Gears of War 2, the developers decided to break that into two filters.
"It seems a number of people are OK with chainsawing monsters from the underground but would prefer not to hear swearing while doing it," Fergusson said.
In Gears of War 3, the two filters returned. While the gore filter hasn't really changed since the original game, Fergusson says the language filters have.
"In Gears 1, we called it 'Extreme Content' because we really only filtered out the harshest of words," he said. " In Gears 2 and now, Gears 3, we've increased the number of words we filter to make it more acceptable to a broader audience."
Giving players the ability to experience the game the way they want to isn't quite as simple as bleeping out a few words. Because the filters can be turned on or off, the process is more complex.
"For every line that has a word that we want to filter out, we'll have two lines loaded in memory - one mature and the other filtered," Fergusson said. "So when the game is preparing to play a line of dialogue, it checks the language filter flag, and if it's set to 'on,' then it will play the filtered line with the radio static. If it's set to 'off,' then it will play the original mature line. Inside each line is the appropriate subtitle so that onscreen text matches what's being said as well."
Even the static sound players hear when a word is filtered was debated.
"Initially, we tried the traditional bleep but it seemed to do more harm than good," he said. "Instead of the filter hiding the mature language, the bleep would give it more attention. In fact, in some cases you would replace the bleeped word in your mind with a word much stronger than what was actually written."
The team's audio director, Mike Larson, suggested trying to blend it more, by either using blanks or simply playing radio static, so it felt more like it was part of the world, he said. So now when you run into filtered foul language in the game it sounds like a radio is on the fritz and you hear static.
To decide what words to filter the team starts with a list based on current television standards for acceptable language. The team then goes through all of the possible bad language and discusses whether each word need to be filtered.
The gore filter is equally complex. When turned on, the game replaces the blood spray effect with one based on sparks.
"We can't simply remove it because in video games the blood is not only a visual effect, it's also an essential feedback mechanism to tell the player whether they're being successful or not," Fergusson said. "Beyond removing the appearance of blood, the gore filter will also prevent bodies from breaking apart or into chunks."
That means if you try to pull the arm off a Locust in Gears of War 3 and the filter is on, you'll punch the creature in the face instead. If you try to chainsaw or shot an enemy up close with a shotgun, they will die, but they won't be blown to bloody bits.
And that's just how the interactive bits of Gears of War is impacted. The game also has its share of non-interactive, movie-like cut-scenes.
Most of the Gears of War 3 cinematics are real-time, so the game can still alter things on the fly. But in previous versions of Gears of War, the game used pre-created moments. And that caused issues.
In Gears of War 2, for instance, there's a cinematic when the game's Sergeant Marcus Fenix utters an expletive. Late in development, Epic decided to pre-render the moment, to make the level run a bit smoother. But it created an issue: Salty language that couldn't be changed on the fly.
The solution was to rework the scene so Fleix says a tame version of the line, and turns his back to the camera as he speaks it so players don't see that he's still mouthing the extra curse word.
While Gears of War isn't the only video game series that allows players to filter out mature language, gore or both, it's still not seen in a lot of mature games.
Fergusson points out that adding the filters isn't a free feature. The developer needs to write two versions of spoken lines and create two sets of subtitles. There's also the cost to the power used by the machine running the game.
Memory is being taken up by having both versions of lines loaded, there's additional disk space taken by the extra audio and there's extra asset management going on.
"Given all that though, we at Epic feel that these filtering options are worth the effort to give the customer the experience he or she wants," he added.
Those customers include the people working at Epic as well.
"We definitely have a lot of parents at Epic who have taken advantage of the filtering," he said. "For me personally, I really enjoy playing Horde with my two sons (17 and nine) but I definitely turn on language filtering for my nine-year-old. If the filtering option didn't exist, then he wouldn't be able to play and we'd lose a lot of great family time together."
Well Played is an internationally syndicated weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Feel free to join in the discussion.